As a woman, your vagina is probably one of the most interesting to you. You give it all attention, and get worried if anything is perceived to be wrong with it.
But how much information do you have about your vagina? These 10 tips may help you.
1. Sex helps it stay healthy
Sure, getting busy burns calories, reduces stress, and boosts immunity, not to mention brings you closer to your partner. But here’s another health benefit of sex: “Sex keeps the vagina alive and lubricated, especially as women get older and estrogen goes down,” Dr. Hutcherson explains.
“Sexual activity keeps blood flowing down there and decreases some of the changes that you get with menopause.” And in fact, all kinds of sexual activity can be helpful. “A lot of gynecologists right now are recommending vibrators to increase blood flow to the vagina,” Dr. Dweck notes.
2. It’s self-cleaning
“You should not need to put anything in the vagina to clean the actual inside,” says Dr. Dweck. That means no douching, no scrubbing inside, and definitely no scented products inserted into your vagina.
“And forget all the sprays, perfumes, and other products designed to cleanse the vulva: “Our culture is obsessed with the gazillion products out there for the vaginal area, but you really don’t need anything other than soap and water,” Dr. Dweck says.
3. You can tone it up
Okay, technically you can’t exercise the vagina itself. But you can strengthen the muscles of the pelvic floor, which support the pelvic organs (including your bladder and uterus) and wrap around the vagina and rectum. Doing Kegel exercises to work your pelvic floor can increase blood flow to the vaginal area and help you have more powerful orgasms, as well as improve bladder control—crucial if you suffer from stress incontinence).
If you’ve suffered damage to your pelvic floor due to pregnancy and/or childbirth, and Kegels alone aren’t cutting it, your ob/gyn may recommend pelvic floor physical therapy, which can include electrostimulation or biofeedback. In some cases surgery may be needed, Dr. Hutcherson says.
4. It’s only one part of your down-there anatomy
While many people use “vagina” to refer to the whole below-the-belt area, inside and out, the term refers specifically to the muscular canal connecting the cervix (aka the lower part of the uterus) to the outside of the body. All the external parts of your reproductive system are properly called the vulva. The vulva includes:
Labia majora: The fleshy, hair-covered outer folds.
Labia minora: The inner lips, which cover the vaginal opening. These can be very small, or they can extend beyond the labia majora. It’s also common for one lip to be longer than the other.
Clitoris: The nerve-rich nub at the top of the vulva, crucial to orgasm and sexual pleasure.
5. Having a baby doesn’t ruin it
“The vagina has the capacity to stretch beyond imagination,” says Dr. Hutcherson. “And it’s the only organ in the human body that has this capacity to stretch like that but then snap back into shape. So your vagina is not shot just because you have a large baby, or have sex with a large man, or use a large dildo.” Even if things are a bit looser down there post-delivery, it shouldn’t affect sexual satisfaction, according to a study published in the International Journal of Impotence Research.
6. You have to be careful what you put in it
Though it’s true you can’t permanently lose small objects in your vagina, that doesn’t mean anything goes. “Don’t put things in it that you can’t get out,” Dr. Hutcherson warns. That includes whipped cream, honey, sugar, or any other sticky or sugary food items. “It’s a setup for infection, because it’s totally going to change the environment of the vagina,” Dr. Hutcherson explains. “Yeast loves sugar, so you’re probably going to get an overgrowth of yeast, and it may change the pH as well.”
7. It’s not supposed to smell like flowers
Some odor down there is perfectly normal. Your personal scent is unique and may vary according to your menstrual cycle, your diet, even how hydrated you are. That said, any foul odor or a smell that’s unusual for you is worth a visit to your ob/gyn to check for infection. And, says Dr. Dweck, “If you are having an odor you think can be noticed across the room, think long and hard about whether you may have left a tampon inside.”
8. It’s full of good bacteria
One very important reason not to douche: “There’s a very delicate balance, a significant ecosystem of yeast and bacteria that are supposed to be there and stay in balance,” Dr. Dweck explains. Douching disturbs the balance of microbes in your vagina along with its natural acidity, potentially leading to the growth of harmful bacteria. In fact, douching has been linked to infections (such as bacterial vaginosis, yeast, and even pelvic inflammatory disease) as well as vaginal irritation.
9. It’s not just a hole
The vagina is what experts call a “potential space,” which means it’s not open all the time. “The walls are collapsed on each other,” explains Dr. Hutcherson. “You’re not walking around with a gaping hole in your body.” Yet it can also stretch and widen during sex or childbirth to accommodate fingers, toys, a penis, or yes, even a 10-pound (or bigger!) baby.
10. Itching doesn’t always mean you have a yeast infection
“There are a lot of things that can cause an itch that aren’t a yeast infection,” says Hilda Hutcherson, MD, professor of ob/gyn at Columbia University Medical Center. That could include chafing from your clothing, irritation from shaving, or a product (like laundry detergent or soap) that the sensitive skin on your vulva is reacting to.
And discharge and discomfort can be caused by other types of vaginal infections, including bacterial vaginosis (which typically comes with a foul-smelling discharge plus irritation and burning) and sexually transmitted infections like trichomoniasis. Check in with your doctor before you use an over-the-counter medication—the wrong treatment can actually make things worse.